Google’s Pixel 6A with Tensor out-Appled Apple’s iPhone SE

iPhone SE 2022 review
(Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

As soon as Google announced the Pixel 6a, most tech blogs started the inevitable Pixel 6a vs. iPhone SE 2022 specs comparisons, asking which would "win" the budget battle. The Pixel gives you a bigger screen and an extra ultrawide camera, while the iPhone has incredible performance and longer software support for a mid-range price.

But in my mind, this question doesn't really matter unless you define your identity by supporting the "best" tech brand. Apple won't actually lose sales to the Pixel 6a. There's very little overlap between iPhone SE buyers who want a Home button throwback and future Pixel 6a buyers looking for a simple stock experience and Google's revamped camera AI. The only throughline is the one-handed design and similar price.

Google followed Apple's playbook by offering uncompromised performance inside a budget handset.

What actually matters, in my opinion, is that the Pixel 6a follows the Apple playbook by putting uncompromised Pixel 6 hardware in a cheap phone, just as the iPhone 13 A15 Bionic chip got thrown into the SE 2022. The 6a compromises where necessary, but not in the one area where it matters most.

Google even went a step further by emulating the flagship Pixel design, so Pixel 6a buyers don't feel like they're getting a compromised experience. The iPhone SE, with its beefy bezels, tiny display, and single rear camera, looks like a budget phone even if it doesn't act like one.

Google out-Appled Apple, in other words. And I'm hoping Apple sees it as a chance to get less complacent about its budget phones.

Google is changing what 'Pixel A' stands for

Up until now, only Apple could pull off flagship speeds in a mid-range device because it retains complete control over its own Bionic SoC production. Android remains in lockstep with whatever mid-range chips Qualcomm (or Mediatek) churns out. You can't just pair a flagship Snapdragon with 4 or 6GB of RAM because these chips are designed with specific memory configurations in mind, and Android is much more RAM-dependant than iOS.

But Tensor changes the game for mid-range phones. Despite the Pixel 6a's downgrades to the cameras, RAM, and refresh rate, you're essentially buying a Pixel 6, only cheaper. 

Google Pixel 6a lifestyle photo

Can you tell from afar if this is the Pixel 6a or 6? (Image credit: Google)

The trademark camera bar will return, nearly all Tensor-exclusive AI tools like Magic Eraser and Live Translate work on the 6a, and leaked benchmarks supposedly show the Pixel 6a matches the 6 in CPU performance despite having less RAM. 

It won't match the iPhone SE in performance, but it doesn't have to; it just needs to play to Google's strengths like Google Assistant and camera processing, and it'll "win" by virtue of being much better than what came before.

Google Tensor in the Pixel 6a converts it from a "budget phone" to a "special edition phone."

Google's last two budget Pixels, the Pixel 5a and Pixel 4a 5G have been competent, to be sure, but also utterly boring in appearance and priced so close to the flagship phones that their compromises and deficiencies looked worse by comparison. And with the 5a in particular, it was clear the chip shortage limited its launch.

Now, Google's partnership with Samsung LSI ensures it can make all the Tensor chips it needs. And now the Pixel A series, rather than being a "budget" lineup, looks more like a Special Edition or Fan Edition phone designed for loyal, frugal fans or as a gateway to new users.

We'll have to wait until late July when the Pixel 6a launches to see whether it actually lives up to our expectations. But the point here is that we've already tested Tensor in our Pixel 6s for months and have every reason to be optimistic. Yes, they've had their fair share of bugs, but the 6a will launch with most of them resolved and a brand-new fingerprint sensor that'll hopefully avoid its predecessor's most notorious issue.

Budget Apple phones don't have to be old or old-school

iPhone SE 2022 review

(Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

Apple allegedly had high expectations for the SE 2022, which made sense considering the iPhone SE 2020 was among the ten best-selling phones of 2021. But Apple quickly cut production estimates due to low demand, with analyst Ming-Chi Kuo saying he'd cut shipping estimates from 25-30 million to 15-20 million. 

According to a 9to5Mac report from carriers and sales reps, despite having the advantage of the iPhone 13's hardware, the iPhone SE 2022 looks so similar to the last model that no one realizes it's any different. And of those who are aware and looking for a new phone, not many are excited by a 4.7-inch phone based on the iPhone 8 design.

Apple has the best performance ever in a mid-range phone, but no compelling mid-range design to attract customers.

If you want a relatively affordable iPhone today, you can buy the iPhone SE for $429 (more likely $479 to get 128GB of RAM) or the iPhone 11 for $499. We have clear evidence shoppers are getting bored of the SE design; and even considering Apple's protracted support for its devices, the iPhone 11 has outdated hardware and only a few OS updates left — nothing special for this price.

Part of this, of course, is by design. Apple wants you to look askance at its cheaper offerings and upsell yourself to its flagship devices. And considering Apple sold about 83 million iPhones in Q4 2021, mostly at high prices, its strategy has worked.

iPhone SE 2022 review

(Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

But even Apple can't subsist on flagships alone. The iPhone SE 2022 is apparently bombing, and the iPhone Mini series is dead after its own lackluster sales. Apple now has to realize that it can't just shove a new chip in an archaic or shrunken phone and expect people to find it compelling.

My hope is that Apple will take the time to design a budget phone that's similar to the mainline series but with key concessions to bring the price down. It's better situated than everyone, even Google, to do this, because it knows how to optimize performance so even a little RAM will generate better performance than even the top Android phones. It just needs to stop being lazy and expecting its fans to happily gobble up leftovers. 

Google learned from Apple's example with the Pixel 6a, but that doesn't mean the 6a will come close to the SE in sales. Before the Pixel 6 — which sold more than the Pixel 4 and 5 combined — Google's best sales year was in 2019, when it sold 7.2 million phones, most of them Pixel 3a units. The 6a may beat those numbers on the strength of Tensor, but it'll fall short of Kuo's downgraded 15-20 million SE sales estimate, because Google Pixel just doesn't have the global presence, carrier partnerships, or brand recognition Apple does. 

But even if Google doesn't "win" the Pixel 6a vs. iPhone SE 2022 battle, Apple may still "lose" in the eyes of a lot of people if it doesn't start to take its frugal fans more seriously, and keeps insisting that cheap phones should be tiny.

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, Wearables & AR/VR

Michael is Android Central's resident expert on wearables and fitness. Before joining Android Central, he freelanced for years at Techradar, Wareable, Windows Central, and Digital Trends. Channeling his love of running, he established himself as an expert on fitness watches, testing and reviewing models from Garmin, Fitbit, Samsung, Apple, COROS, Polar, Amazfit, Suunto, and more.